Ten years ago, just after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, The Nation published a special issue on the National Entertainment State. The issue featured a centerfold chart depicting the tentacles of four colossal conglomerates that were increasingly responsible for determining how Americans got their news–Time Warner, General Electric, Disney/Cap Cities and Westinghouse. And essays by Norman Lear, Walter Cronkite and Mark Crispin Miller, among others, looked ahead to a period of no-holds-barred consolidation green-lighted by the new legislation. Today, after a decade of strategic mergers, impulsive couplings and messy divorces–not to mention the birth of “new media” as well as a vigorous media reform movement–the landscape is considerably more complex, though it still bears the oversized footprints of a few giants. This is reflected not only in the detailed fold-out map that appears in this issue but in the range of contributions to this year’s forum.
The centerfold is an invitation to step back from the outrage of the moment–be it over Rush Limbaugh’s addled ranting, Bill O’Reilly’s spin or the White House press corps’s inability to distinguish between journalism and stenography–and see the big picture in gruesome detail. It reminds us that while we might hate the rigid recitation of conservative talking points on Fox News programs and love the Internet frontier reached via MySpace.com, both Fox and MySpace are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It tells us that when we are wondering whether we should trust an NBC Nightly News report on the greening of nuclear power, it is important to keep in mind that NBC’s owner, General Electric, has a more than passing interest in the development and operation of nuclear power plants. And the chart also reminds us that GE owns Universal Pictures and Universal Studios, making it a major player in the creation of the culture–the TV shows and movies–that goes so far to define what Americans think and do.
It is the power that a handful of corporations continue to wield over the media we consume–even the new media of a supposedly liberating Internet–that ought to concern us as citizens. It is not enough to hope that the Internet will set us free. Yes, the World Wide Web is evolving in ways that few anticipated a decade ago, and yes, as the optimism of Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and the skepticism of Mark Crispin Miller illustrate, there are differing views among progressives of what that evolution is likely to mean. It is a good bet, however, that another forum participant, Rebecca MacKinnon, is right when she argues that new-media companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft will in relatively short order either displace some of the old-media companies on the chart or acquire or merge with them. (Those entities do not appear on this year’s chart simply because they do not own major television networks–not yet, anyway–and the Internet has yet to surpass television as Americans’ number-one source for news.) But the vast frontiers of new media are being colonized by big players of old media, which just won round one in the fight over “net neutrality” with the House’s passage of the COPE Act, legislation that would allow commercial sites to dominate the net. With the FCC preparing another attempt to strike down rules that guard against local media monopolies, we are entering a period of intense struggle over the fundamental questions for both old and new media: Who will own what, and will the rules regulating ownership be written to benefit the owners or the rest of us? The powerhouses of today’s National Entertainment State stand ready to answer those questions as they always have, by using all their might to make sure that the new boss is the same as the old boss.
But the past need not be prologue. As Robert W. McChesney, Jeffrey Chester and others explain in this issue, the media reform movement that has taken shape over the past decade can do far more than merely police the margins of this Big Media map. It can, and must, chart a course of activism that makes real the promise of new media, that confronts the problems of old media and that recognizes the necessity of creating genuine diversity of media ownership and communicative opportunity, anchored by civic rather than commercial values. If this movement realizes its potential, the next chart of the National Entertainment State will be a map of our media, not theirs.